After four white students won the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day essay contest at the University of Montana, a flood of outrage poured out, condemning school officials as racist.
No pleasing social justice warriors
It was found this had much more to do with Montana’s demographics than racial “elitism.”
“The University of Montana has very few black students, which is understandable, because the state of Montana has very few black people,” TheBlaze reported. “The fact that white students were the only winners wasn't due to racism by the judges, though. It turns out, no black students entered the contest at all – a revelation that led to another category of public criticism, aimed at the university's lack of scrutiny about why no black students had participated.”
In fact, the contest had the opposite of the intended effect, as it held the competition to improve race relations.
“The University of Montana was in the early stages of addressing complaints about the lack of racial diversity on campus when it decided to hold an essay contest marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” Inside Higher Ed (IHE) explained. “The contest was seen as an opportunity to engage students of various backgrounds and spur dialogue across the campus about the life and work of the late civil rights leader, but the plans backfired when the university announced, and proudly promoted, the four winning essays – all penned by white students.”
Much of the backlash was witnessed on social media – by both blacks and whites alike.
"… [T]his is shameful and embarrassing, and I say that as a pasty [expletive] white girl," a white student posted on Facebook, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Nika Martignoni on a Facebook post announcing the contest winners, according to IHE. "I'm cringing for you because clearly none of you who ran this contest were raised with the good grace to do the cringing yourselves. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
Blacks were unhappy, as well.
"Why was there no curiosity from the panel, the head of the department, or others involved, about the absence of black participants?" Laura Nigh, an African American, wrote on Facebook. "Having grown up in all white spaces, I often avoided events such as this because I knew the purpose was a performative gesture from the administration. ... Rather than sellout/compromise myself, I would avoid the performance."
Instead of applauding the university for taking an action step toward integrating the races, one white accused it for focusing on “Whiteness.”
"This is unbelievably tone deaf – I cannot understand how anyone would think remembering the legacy of MLK Jr. is achieved by giving four white girls a shout out,” Jeff Mitchell, posted on Facebook. “If the university does not have black voices to lift up on MLK Day, then find them. Do not center Whiteness on the day we are supposed to remember MLK Jr.’s legacy. "
And even though one student tried to add another politically correct rant to denounce racism, her feedback can be argued to perpetuate the very thing she is condemning by saying it’s impossible for whites to understand blacks – essentially justifying segregation and insisting that the two dwell over their differences … instead of encouraging the groups to celebrate what they have in common.
"I’m a white literature major who was encouraged to submit an essay, [and] I didn’t because I’m white and I will never truly understand the experiences of African Americans, and therefore decided this opportunity was not for me," Elizabeth Wipperman insisted on Facebook. "It’s great that my fellow white people are speaking out against racism, but this is an excellent example of speaking over black voices. It’s gonna be a 'yikes' from me."
The all-too-familiar “white privilege” card was thrown in by a Latino student Marco Lopez, the president of the campus’s Kyiyo Native American Student Association, which throws one of the university’s largest annual cultural events.
“The meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life work isn’t going to be as significant to somebody who is from a privileged background,” Lopez said, insisting school officials should have extended the contest deadline to include blacks, according to IHE. “It doesn’t affect the day-to-day lives of white people as much as it does people of color, who historically have faced oppression in their daily life.”
Not all commentary was negative, including one by University of Southern California Race and Equity Center Executive Director Shaun Harper, who argued that white students entering the competition was something positive.
“It is totally fine and appropriate and good for white people to write about the legacy and impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and their understanding of King’s contributions to social justice,” Harper explained in IHE. “I would go so far to say I wish we had more white students in college who would and could take the time to articulate King’s impact on social justice.”
Flying in the face of the criticism, the University of Montana’s student body is more diverse than the rest of the state, with 79% of undergrads being white vs. 1% being black, while 89% of the state is white, next to 0.6% black.
"The essay submission rate for white undergraduates was 0.1%," the Wall Street Journal informed. "If the school's population of black students had submitted at the same rate, 0.08% of the essay contest submissions would have been from black writers. That's essentially zero, which is, in fact, how many such submissions were received."